A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain
Chapter 25 - A Competitive Examination
WHEN the king traveled for change of air, or made a progress, or visited a
distant noble whom he wished to bankrupt with the cost of his keep, part of the
administration moved with him. It was a fashion of the time. The Commission charged with
the examination of candidates for posts in the army came with the king to the Valley,
whereas they could have transacted their business just as well at home. And although this
expedition was strictly a holiday excursion for the king, he kept some of his business
functions going just the same. He touched for the evil, as usual; he held court in the
gate at sunrise and tried cases, for he was himself Chief Justice of the King's Bench.
He shone very well in this latter office. He was a wise and humane judge, and he clearly did
his honest best and fairest, -- according to his lights. That is a large reservation. His
lights -- I mean his rearing -- often colored his decisions. Whenever there was a dispute
between a noble or gentleman and a person of lower degree, the king's leanings and
sympathies were for the former class always, whether he suspected it or not. It was
impossible that this should be otherwise. The blunting effects of slavery upon the
slaveholder's moral perceptions are known and conceded, the world over; and a privileged
class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name. This has a harsh
sound, and yet should not be offensive to any -- even to the noble himself -- unless the
fact itself be an offense: for the statement simply formulates a fact. The repulsive
feature of slavery is the THING, not its name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak
of the classes that are below him to recognize -- and in but indifferently modified
measure -- the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are the
slaveholder's spirit, the slaveholder's blunted feeling. They are the result of the same
cause in both cases: the possessor's old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a
superior being. The king's judgments wrought frequent injustices, but it was merely the
fault of his training, his natural and unalterable sympathies. He was as unfitted for a
judgeship as would be the average mother for the position of milk-distributor to starving
children in famine-time; her own children would fare a shade better than the rest.
One very curious case came before the king. A young girl, an orphan, who had a
considerable estate, married a fine young fellow who had nothing. The girl's property was
within a seigniory held by the Church. The bishop of the diocese, an arrogant scion of the
great nobility, claimed the girl's estate on the ground that she had married privately,
and thus had cheated the Church out of one of its rights as lord of the seigniory -- the
one heretofore referred to as le droit du seigneur. The penalty of refusal or avoidance
was confiscation. The girl's defense was, that the lordship of the seigniory was vested in
the bishop, and the particular right here involved was not transferable, but must be
exercised by the lord himself or stand vacated; and that an older law, of the Church
itself, strictly barred the bishop from exercising it. It was a very odd case, indeed.
It reminded me of something I had read in my youth about the ingenious way in which the
aldermen of London raised the money that built the Mansion House. A person who had not
taken the Sacrament according to the Anglican rite could not stand as a candidate for
sheriff of London. Thus Dissenters were ineligible; they could not run if asked, they
could not serve if elected. The aldermen, who without any question were Yankees in
disguise, hit upon this neat device: they passed a by-law imposing a fine of L400 upon any
one who should refuse to be a candidate for sheriff, and a fine of L600 upon any person
who, after being elected sheriff, refused to serve. Then they went to work and elected a
lot of Dissenters, one after another, and kept it up until they had collected L15,000 in
fines; and there stands the stately Mansion House to this day, to keep the blushing
citizen in mind of a long past and lamented day when a band of Yankees slipped into London
and played games of the sort that has given their race a unique and shady reputation among
all truly good and holy peoples that be in the earth.
The girl's case seemed strong to me; the bishop's case was just as strong. I did not
see how the king was going to get out of this hole. But he got out. I append his decision:
"Truly I find small difficulty here, the matter being even a child's affair for
simpleness. An the young bride had conveyed notice, as in duty bound, to her feudal lord
and proper master and protector the bishop, she had suffered no loss, for the said bishop
could have got a dispensation making him, for temporary conveniency, eligible to the
exercise of his said right, and thus would she have kept all she had. Whereas, failing in
her first duty, she hath by that failure failed in all; for whoso, clinging to a rope,
severeth it above his hands, must fall; it being no defense to claim that the rest of the
rope is sound, neither any deliverance from his peril, as he shall find. Pardy, the
woman's case is rotten at the source. It is the decree of the court that she forfeit to
the said lord bishop all her goods, even to the last farthing that she doth possess, and
be thereto mulcted in the costs. Next!"
Here was a tragic end to a beautiful honeymoon not yet three months old. Poor young
creatures! They had lived these three months lapped to the lips in worldly comforts. These
clothes and trinkets they were wearing were as fine and dainty as the shrewdest stretch of
the sumptuary laws allowed to people of their degree; and in these pretty clothes, she
crying on his shoulder, and he trying to comfort her with hopeful words set to the music
of despair, they went from the judgment seat out into the world homeless, bedless,
breadless; why, the very beggars by the roadsides were not so poor as they.
Well, the king was out of the hole; and on terms satisfactory to the Church and the
rest of the aristocracy, no doubt. Men write many fine and plausible arguments in support
of monarchy, but the fact remains that where every man in a State has a vote, brutal laws
are impossible. Arthur's people were of course poor material for a republic, because they
had been debased so long by monarchy; and yet even they would have been intelligent enough
to make short work of that law which the king had just been administering if it had been
submitted to their full and free vote. There is a phrase which has grown so common in the
world's mouth that it has come to seem to have sense and meaning -- the sense and meaning
implied when it is used; that is the phrase which refers to this or that or the other
nation as possibly being "capable of selfgovernment"; and the implied sense of
it is, that there has been a nation somewhere, some time or other which WASN'T capable of
it -- wasn't as able to govern itself as some self-appointed specialists were or would be
to govern it. The master minds of all nations, in all ages, have sprung in affluent
multitude from the mass of the nation, and from the mass of the nation only -- not from
its privileged classes; and so, no matter what the nation's intellectual grade was;
whether high or low, the bulk of its ability was in the long ranks of its nameless and its
poor, and so it never saw the day that it had not the material in abundance whereby to
govern itself. Which is to assert an always self-proven fact: that even the best governed
and most free and most enlightened monarchy is still behind the best condition attainable
by its people; and that the same is true of kindred governments of lower grades, all the
way down to the lowest.
King Arthur had hurried up the army business altogether beyond my calculations. I had
not supposed he would move in the matter while I was away; and so I had not mapped out a
scheme for determining the merits of officers; I had only remarked that it would be wise
to submit every candidate to a sharp and searching examination; and privately I meant to
put together a list of military qualifications that nobody could answer to but my West
Pointers. That ought to have been attended to before I left; for the king was so taken
with the idea of a standing army that he couldn't wait but must get about it at once, and
get up as good a scheme of examination as he could invent out of his own head.
I was impatient to see what this was; and to show, too, how much more admirable was the
one which I should display to the Examining Board. I intimated this, gently, to the king,
and it fired his curiosity When the Board was assembled, I followed him in; and behind us
came the candidates. One of these candidates was a bright young West Pointer of mine, and
with him were a couple of my West Point professors.
When I saw the Board, I did not know whether to cry or to laugh. The head of it was the
officer known to later centuries as Norroy King-at-Arms! The two other members were chiefs
of bureaus in his department; and all three were priests, of course; all officials who had
to know how to read and write were priests.
My candidate was called first, out of courtesy to me, and the head of the Board opened
on him with official solemnity:
"Webster -- Webster. H'm -- I -- my memory faileth to recall the name.
"Weaver! -- God keep us!"
The king was staggered, from his summit to his foundations; one clerk fainted, and the
others came near it. The chairman pulled himself together, and said indignantly:
"It is sufficient. Get you hence."
But I appealed to the king. I begged that my candidate might be examined. The king was
willing, but the Board, who were all well-born folk, implored the king to spare them the
indignity of examining the weaver's son. I knew they didn't know enough to examine him
anyway, so I joined my prayers to theirs and the king turned the duty over to my
professors. I had had a blackboard prepared, and it was put up now, and the circus began.
It was beautiful to hear the lad lay out the science of war, and wallow in details of
battle and siege, of supply, transportation, mining and countermining, grand tactics, big
strategy and little strategy, signal service, infantry, cavalry, artillery, and all about
siege guns, field guns, gatling guns, rifled guns, smooth bores, musket practice, revolver
practice -- and not a solitary word of it all could these catfish make head or tail of,
you understand -- and it was handsome to see him chalk off mathematical nightmares on the
blackboard that would stump the angels themselves, and do it like nothing, too -- all
about eclipses, and comets, and solstices, and constellations, and mean time, and sidereal
time, and dinner time, and bedtime, and every other imaginable thing above the clouds or
under them that you could harry or bullyrag an enemy with and make him wish he hadn't come
-- and when the boy made his military salute and stood aside at last, I was proud enough
to hug him, and all those other people were so dazed they looked partly petrified, partly
drunk, and wholly caught out and snowed under. I judged that the cake was ours, and by a
Education is a great thing. This was the same youth who had come to West Point so
ignorant that when I asked him, "If a general officer should have a horse shot under
him on the field of battle, what ought he to do?" answered up naively and said:
"Get up and brush himself."
One of the young nobles was called up now. I thought I would question him a little
myself. I said:
"Can your lordship read?"
His face flushed indignantly, and he fired this at me:
"Takest me for a clerk? I trow I am not of a blood that --"
"Answer the question!"
He crowded his wrath down and made out to answer "No."
"Can you write?"
He wanted to resent this, too, but I said:
"You will confine yourself to the questions, and make no comments. You are not
here to air your blood or your graces, and nothing of the sort will be permitted. Can you
"Do you know the multiplication table?"
"I wit not what ye refer to."
"How much is 9 times 6?"
"It is a mystery that is hidden from me by reason that the emergency requiring the
fathoming of it hath not in my life-days occurred, and so, not having no need to know this
thing, I abide barren of the knowledge."
"If A trade a barrel of onions to B, worth 2 pence the bushel, in exchange for a
sheep worth 4 pence and a dog worth a penny, and C kill the dog before delivery, because
bitten by the same, who mistook him for D, what sum is still due to A from B, and which
party pays for the dog, C or D, and who gets the money? If A, is the penny sufficient, or
may he claim consequential damages in the form of additional money to represent the
possible profit which might have inured from the dog, and classifiable as earned
increment, that is to say, usufruct?"
"Verily, in the all-wise and unknowable providence of God, who moveth in
mysterious ways his wonders to perform, have I never heard the fellow to this question for
confusion of the mind and congestion of the ducts of thought. Wherefore I beseech you let
the dog and the onions and these people of the strange and godless names work out their
several salvations from their piteous and wonderful difficulties without help of mine, for
indeed their trouble is sufficient as it is, whereas an I tried to help I should but
damage their cause the more and yet mayhap not live myself to see the desolation
"What do you know of the laws of attraction and gravitation?"
"If there be such, mayhap his grace the king did promulgate them whilst that I lay
sick about the beginning of the year and thereby failed to hear his proclamation."
"What do you know of the science of optics?"
"I know of governors of places, and seneschals of castles, and sheriffs of
counties, and many like small offices and titles of honor, but him you call the Science of
Optics I have not heard of before; peradventure it is a new dignity."
"Yes, in this country."
Try to conceive of this mollusk gravely applying for an official position, of any kind
under the sun! Why, he had all the earmarks of a typewriter copyist, if you leave out the
disposition to contribute uninvited emendations of your grammar and punctuation. It was
unaccountable that he didn't attempt a little help of that sort out of his majestic supply
of incapacity for the job. But that didn't prove that he hadn't material in him for the
disposition, it only proved that he wasn't a typewriter copyist yet. After nagging him a
little more, I let the professors loose on him and they turned him inside out, on the line
of scientific war, and found him empty, of course. He knew somewhat about the warfare of
the time -- bushwhacking around for ogres, and bull-fights in the tournament ring, and
such things -- but otherwise he was empty and useless. Then we took the other young noble
in hand, and he was the first one's twin, for ignorance and incapacity. I delivered them
into the hands of the chairman of the Board with the comfortable consciousness that their
cake was dough. They were examined in the previous order of precedence.
"Name, so please you?"
"Pertipole, son of Sir Pertipole, Baron of Barley Mash."
"Also Sir Pertipole, Baron of Barley Mash."
"The same name and title."
"We had none, worshipful sir, the line failing before it had reached so far
"It mattereth not. It is a good four generations, and fulfilleth the requirements
of the rule."
"Fulfills what rule?" I asked.
"The rule requiring four generations of nobility or else the candidate is not
"A man not eligible for a lieutenancy in the army unless he can prove four
generations of noble descent?"
"Even so; neither lieutenant nor any other officer may be commissioned without
"Oh, come, this is an astonishing thing. What good is such a qualification as
"What good? It is a hardy question, fair sir and Boss, since it doth go far to
impugn the wisdom of even our holy Mother Church herself."
"For that she hath established the self-same rule regarding saints. By her law
none may be canonized until he hath lain dead four generations."
"I see, I see -- it is the same thing. It is wonderful. In the one case a man lies
dead-alive four generations -- mummified in ignorance and sloth -- and that qualifies him
to command live people, and take their weal and woe into his impotent hands; and in the
other case, a man lies bedded with death and worms four generations, and that qualifies
him for office in the celestial camp. Does the king's grace approve of this strange
The king said:
"Why, truly I see naught about it that is strange. All places of honor and of
profit do belong, by natural right, to them that be of noble blood, and so these dignities
in the army are their property and would be so without this or any rule. The rule is but
to mark a limit. Its purpose is to keep out too recent blood, which would bring into
contempt these offices, and men of lofty lineage would turn their backs and scorn to take
them. I were to blame an I permitted this calamity. YOU can permit it an you are minded so
to do, for you have the delegated authority, but that the king should do it were a most
strange madness and not comprehensible to any."
"I yield. Proceed, sir Chief of the Herald's College. "
The chairman resumed as follows:
"By what illustrious achievement for the honor of the Throne and State did the
founder of your great line lift himself to the sacred dignity of the British
"He built a brewery."
"Sire, the Board finds this candidate perfect in all the requirements and
qualifications for military command, and doth hold his case open for decision after due
examination of his competitor."
The competitor came forward and proved exactly four generations of nobility himself. So
there was a tie in military qualifications that far.
He stood aside a moment, and Sir Pertipole was questioned further:
"Of what condition was the wife of the founder of your line?"
"She came of the highest landed gentry, yet she was not noble; she was gracious
and pure and charitable, of a blameless life and character, insomuch that in these regards
was she peer of the best lady in the land."
"That will do. Stand down." He called up the competing lordling again, and
asked: "What was the rank and condition of the great-grandmother who conferred
British nobility upon your great house?"
"She was a king's leman and did climb to that splendid eminence by her own
unholpen merit from the sewer where she was born."
"Ah, this, indeed, is true nobility, this is the right and perfect intermixture.
The lieutenancy is yours, fair lord. Hold it not in contempt; it is the humble step which
will lead to grandeurs more worthy of the splendor of an origin like to thine."
I was down in the bottomless pit of humiliation. I had promised myself an easy and
zenith-scouring triumph, and this was the outcome!
I was almost ashamed to look my poor disappointed cadet in the face. I told him to go
home and be patient, this wasn't the end.
I had a private audience with the king, and made a proposition. I said it was quite
right to officer that regiment with nobilities, and he couldn't have done a wiser thing.
It would also be a good idea to add five hundred officers to it; in fact, add as many
officers as there were nobles and relatives of nobles in the country, even if there should
finally be five times as many officers as privates in it; and thus make it the crack
regiment, the envied regiment, the King's Own regiment, and entitled to fight on its own
hook and in its own way, and go whither it would and come when it pleased, in time of war,
and be utterly swell and independent. This would make that regiment the heart's desire of
all the nobility, and they would all be satisfied and happy. Then we would make up the
rest of the standing army out of commonplace materials, and officer it with nobodies, as
was proper -- nobodies selected on a basis of mere efficiency -- and we would make this
regiment toe the line, allow it no aristocratic freedom from restraint, and force it to do
all the work and persistent hammering, to the end that whenever the King's Own was tired
and wanted to go off for a change and rummage around amongst ogres and have a good time,
it could go without uneasiness, knowing that matters were in safe hands behind it, and
business going to be continued at the old stand, same as usual. The king was charmed with
When I noticed that, it gave me a valuable notion. I thought I saw my way out of an old
and stubborn difficulty at last. You see, the royalties of the Pendragon stock were a
long-lived race and very fruitful. Whenever a child was born to any of these -- and it was
pretty often -- there was wild joy in the nation's mouth, and piteous sorrow in the
nation's heart. The joy was questionable, but the grief was honest. Because the event
meant another call for a Royal Grant. Long was the list of these royalties, and they were
a heavy and steadily increasing burden upon the treasury and a menace to the crown. Yet
Arthur could not believe this latter fact, and he would not listen to any of my various
projects for substituting something in the place of the royal grants. If I could have
persuaded him to now and then provide a support for one of these outlying scions from his
own pocket, I could have made a grand to-do over it, and it would have had a good effect
with the nation; but no, he wouldn't hear of such a thing. He had something like a
religious passion for royal grant; he seemed to look upon it as a sort of sacred swag, and
one could not irritate him in any way so quickly and so surely as by an attack upon that
venerable institution. If I ventured to cautiously hint that there was not another
respectable family in England that would humble itself to hold out the hat -- however,
that is as far as I ever got; he always cut me short there, and peremptorily, too.
But I believed I saw my chance at last. I would form this crack regiment out of
officers alone -- not a single private. Half of it should consist of nobles, who should
fill all the places up to Major-General, and serve gratis and pay their own expenses; and
they would be glad to do this when they should learn that the rest of the regiment would
consist exclusively of princes of the blood. These princes of the blood should range in
rank from Lieutenant-General up to Field Marshal, and be gorgeously salaried and equipped
and fed by the state. Moreover -- and this was the master stroke -- it should be decreed
that these princely grandees should be always addressed by a stunningly gaudy and
awe-compelling title (which I would presently invent), and they and they only in all
England should be so addressed. Finally, all princes of the blood should have free choice;
join that regiment, get that great title, and renounce the royal grant, or stay out and
receive a grant. Neatest touch of all: unborn but imminent princes of the blood could be
BORN into the regiment, and start fair, with good wages and a permanent situation, upon
due notice from the parents.
All the boys would join, I was sure of that; so, all existing grants would be
relinquished; that the newly born would always join was equally certain. Within sixty days
that quaint and bizarre anomaly, the Royal Grant, would cease to be a living fact, and
take its place among the curiosities of the past.
The Celtic Hammer June 22, 1996